"Happiness means peace, sir," states a lad named Sonam Dorji. "If there is peace, naturally there comes happiness. No, sir?"
"The government of Bhutan is trying to create happiness, and it cares about me and my friends," echoes Yeshi Chudu. "My life in Bhutan is very happy," agrees Sonam Choekyi. "I don't worry that much, just about my studies. And yes, the government cares about us. The king gives priority to the youth of Bhutan!" I listen to all of this in awe; it's not the response you'd get at many American high schools. On the other hand, the comments have an eerily scripted ring. I grin, understanding why some travelers refer to the Bhutanese as "Stepford Buddhists."
The key to this phenomenon—Bhutan as Camelot East—is the single thing that most of Bhutan's neighbors, especially poor Nepal, lack: the strong leadership of a smart Buddhist king. One of the most striking sights I have seen in Bhutan is a photograph of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, now in his late 40s. He is a notably handsome man. In the photograph, Wangchuck—wearing a snappy red gho—is crouched down, head slightly turned, listening intently to a young boy. Along with kneesocks, the king sports a pair of sturdy hiking boots. He seems every inch a people's monarch—sharp and concerned, majestic but accessible.
And, in the best tradition of Buddhist rule, the king is accessible. Any Bhutanese citizen with a grievance can plant him- or herself in the path of the royal motorcade, holding out a ceremonial scarf, called a kopné. His Majesty is compelled to halt and hear the petition. If he feels the case has merit, he refers it to the Royal Advisory Council, the Bhutanese equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court—the difference being that the council includes Buddhist adepts.
I meet Councillor Gembo Dorji in his spare but modern office in Tashichhoe Dzong, a sprawling white compound that serves as the nation's Capitol Hill and central diocese. Dorji, now 37, left university and became a monk at the age of 21. A calm, almost inaudibly soft-spoken man, he wears a maroon and yellow robe and a bulky Casio on his wrist. A rust-colored kopné, draped over his left shoulder, identifies him as a member of the highest court in the land.
I ask the councillor to explain how a Buddhist judiciary contributes to good governance, one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness. "We in Bhutan have preserved our culture for so long, between very powerful nations, only because of Buddhism," he says. "So moral education is very important. We believe that true happiness can only come from inside."
"Is there such a thing as fundamentalist Buddhist law," I ask, "with customary penalties and punishments?"
"Our law is definitely based on Buddhist principles," he replies. "But it doesn't spell out penalties. There is no death penalty. Life imprisonment is the highest penalty—or cancellation of a business license, for a businessman. We weigh the priorities of each case we have to address."
"Is there any attempt made to rehabilitate criminals using Buddhist principles?"